March 17, 2008

i'm trying to properly understand technological determinism and film cultures.

I'm just entering a 'writing phase' at the moment - the end of term gives me that opportunity.  This is a period of time when I plan to write a large amount of words in a short period of time, hopefully enabling myself to give my supervisor a substantial piece of work that we can discuss at length.  These are periods when things begin to come together, on paper rather than abstract and disconnected thoughts and conversations.  I'm working on a planned chapter about the introduction of digital video to cinema production, and the different connotations that it accrued along the way.

One facet of this particular project is the investigation of different film cultures, how a technology travels through different cultures of cinema (in the case of digital video, it is very broadly 'dogme to modern auteurs to hollywood').  This compels me to read some work about film cultures (on which Barbara Klinger's 'Beyond the Multiplex' is the best book I've read so far).  This weekend I've spent some time reading Janet Harbord's 'Film Cultures'.  

There was an observation and an argument that I read last night that interested me - partially because it was the most difficult part of the first chapter, and so I spent much longer handling these ideas than others.  Here, Harbord is investigating the earliest formations of film cultures (defined, broadly, as 'sites where the value of film is produced' [2]) and their relationships to existing socio-cultural formations.  One of her main arguments here is that film cultures are always fluid, constantly susceptible to being altered or reconceptualised.  To illustrate this, she describes how Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer wrote about cinema in the 1930s, and suggests that it shifted away from existing conceptions.  To sketch out the context into which these discourses enter:

The reintegration of life and art in film, however, was to occur in the mainstream if it did at all, a film culture of psychological realism and narrative drama soliciting audience identification.  The formally 'radical' aspects of the cinema of excess, the Melies tradition of magic and trickery, was to take root in the avant-garde tradition of art and aesthetic experimentation, splitting once again a culture of mimesis from a culture of formal play.  It is a split that, I would argue, lives on in what becomes a reconfigured relation of avant-garde and mass culture in specific film cultures. (28)

Her point about Benjamin and Kracauer is that they, as Modernists, both wrote about cinema in a way that attempted to collapse any distinction between art and life - I think (and I'm perfectly prepared to accept that I've misread it) this means that they had in common a belief that, as an art, cinema was not 'outside' of life, and that the two could mutually affect one another.  Harbord references Benjamin as writing that "vision here is not an optical mechanism akin to the camera, but a bodily response, an 'intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment'" (31, Benjamin quote between apostrophes).  The 'bodily response' of the cinema spectator occurs in reality, creating a link between art and life.  In comparison, Kracauer is quoted as saying 'What they [spectators] really crave is for once to be released from the grip of consciousness, lose their identity in the dark, and let sink in, with their senses ready to absorb them, the images as they happen to follow each other on the screen' (quoted on 31).  On writing out that Kracauer quotation, it feels less like collapsing any distinction between art and life rather than enforcing a distinction (the experience of watching a film like losing your identity in the dark?  sounds like escape from life to me...), but Harbord continues:

What we find in their work is a return of 'art' (or here mass culture) to life, a mixing of these Kantian divisions within practices of cinematic, mass culture: memory and screen image, street-life and cinematic narrative overlap, and converge at the point of the spectator....The potential for film to endlessly replay events, to present images and scenes from different moments and contexts in juxtaposition, butting up against one another, offered both writers an allegorical way of reversing the inevitability of history. (31)

The impetus for these writers to engage with history, its inevitability and society is said to be the rise of Nazism, the historical setting for this critical work.  Harbord goes on later to make the point in a different way when she writes, "From Benjamin through to Charney and Friedberg [two contemporary scholars], the cinematic form is itself endowed with the ability to transform audience perception to various political ends." (32)  These writers describe cinema in a way that, through the concrete figure of the spectator, conjoins it to life - this is, I believe, in contrast to the classic Kantian description of the aesthetic observer as maintaining a critical distance from the work, somehow 'outside' of life and within the aesthetic experience.

The most interesting part for me is when Harbord states her problem with this line of thinking about cinema.  She writes:

Yet, the difficulty of these theses which propose a shifted structure of perception attributable to cinema is a latent technological determinism.  The political potential lies in its form, and its effect on an undifferentiated mass; for Benjamin this is manifest in the shock of the viewing experience.  Yet, as Gunning and Huyssen argue, the shock effects of early cinema live on in both the avant-garde and mainstream cinema with no guaranteed return (special effects, for example, can claim no inherent radicalism).  For my purposes, this attribution of the political to the cinematic apparatus relocates politics within a generalized effect of technology. (32-33)

Technological determinism is a concept that I encounter frequently, and I'm trying to determine a precise, working meaning for it (hello, blog entry!).  Why are these conceptions of cinema technologically deterministic?  In Harbord's terms here, it is because the political potential is attributed to all cinema and all audiences, just by virtue of being cinema and cinema audiences ('the political potential lies in its form, and its effect on an undifferentiated mass').  Benjamin, Kracauer et al here create a 'generalized effect of technology' - whereas what Harbord implies is that we need to understand the different things that filmmakers can do with this technology, and the different types of audience that value the results.  These are the film cultures, I believe.  I've just finished work as a teaching assistant on a module about Italian neo-realism - and I do see films such as Roma citta aperta or Bicycle Thieves as having political potential, but it is to do with the way they use the cinema technology (rather than because they are cinema in the first place).

Harbord therefore utters the dreaded phrase technological determinism to criticise a methodology that theorises cinema, as a technology with specific common effects on spectators, in a particular way and therefore reads all uses of that technology along the same lines.  One aim of my investigation of digital video therefore should be to avoid characterising the aesthetic attributes of the production technology (i.e. digital video is used to make films that are somehow closer to reality) and then assuming that that applies to all uses of the technology.  As I mentioned at the beginning, digital video has travelled through different film cultures and so has potentially been used different in (and within) each. 

I need to look at some different works in which people describe something as technologically deterministic.  Because I would cry if someone called me that..         

That was a bit longer than I originally intended.  Oh well, I feel like I understand it a little better.  Do comment if I've made an error, or you can help me understand some of this stuff!

There is a report at Shooting Down Pictures from a conference that took place at NYU last weekend, about Film Criticism, featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin.  They've got some good things to say.  

The 'sweep from half guard' demonstration about half-way down here illustrates what I was describing on Saturday.  Rosie and I drilled it to death yesterday, and we worked on the same technique again this evening in class and I think I've got it down a lot better.  I was shooting the wrong arm through the legs, and not keeping my head low enough (both reasons why my back kept taken in sparring).  Chiu has taught us three different ways to sweep your opponent once you have their foot and leg trapped - I think I've done them all pretty successfully.


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